Opinion Columns & Blogs

October 9, 2011

Gwyn Mellinger: State's GOP split already on display

Kansans who've lapsed into thinking the state has two political parties are reminded that the GOP's ideological divide creates a third.

Kansans who've lapsed into thinking the state has two political parties are reminded that the GOP's ideological divide creates a third.

This fact of Kansas politics is being affirmed by the far-right conservatives who've recently declared themselves challengers of moderate Republicans in the Kansas Senate. With 10 months to go until the August primary, at least seven incumbents already have drawn opponents from within their own party. More likely are on the way.

There's nothing subtle about the motivation for these candidacies and no mistaking the philosophical distance between the two Republicans in a given Senate primary. Incumbents with early opponents have been targeted as RINOs — Republicans in name only — in the conservative blogosphere, which drives much of the political discourse on the tea-party side of the GOP.

Political payback is clearly part of the equation, too. Take, for instance, Bob Reader's announcement last month that he would oppose Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan. A spokesman for Reader's campaign told a reporter that Reitz "doesn't mix well with the Brownback administration."

Reitz didn't mix well with the conservative Brownback administration on the question of state funding for the arts. Reitz opposed the governor's veto of the Kansas Arts Commission's budget and even received an award for his bipartisan leadership on the issue from Americans for the Arts and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Speaking of the National Conference of State Legislatures, its president, Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, who is also the moderate president of the Kansas Senate, has drawn a primary challenge from Rep. Larry Powell, R-Garden City. Powell entered the race proclaiming that he is more conservative than Morris and is therefore more qualified to serve.

Not surprisingly, Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, the Senate's ultra-moderate vice president, also faces a primary opponent. Republicans on the right would see defeating Vratil, who has been labeled "RINO No. 1" by one conservative blogger, as a trophy win. Vratil has been on the liberal side of several hallmark conservative issues, including concealed-carry and increased restrictions on late-term abortions.

Other moderates who already have primary opponents include Sens. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park; Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka; Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell; and Terrie Huntington, R-Fairway. But the early challenges for Reitz and the party's top two Senate leaders are most symbolic.

These races also affirm a long-standing divide in the state GOP, one that has produced testy elections for precinct committee posts across the state. Nor is Republican infighting in the Legislature anything new. In 2008, Sen. Susan Wagle, R- Wichita, tried to unseat Morris from the Senate presidency; in 2010, moderate Republicans in the House came in for a primary assault.

For Republicans, party loyalty is a fuzzy concept. That's because Republicans don't agree about what it means to be a Republican.

Observers of Kansas politics are grateful for the show. What all of this means, of course, is that the coming legislative session will have clear political meaning and the drama-filled GOP primary will have greater impact on the state's future than the 2012 general election.

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